Don’t conflate liberalism with leftism
21 October 2009
I felt the need to point out a rather significant confusion of terms to be found in Joseph Shahadi’s review of Steven Salaita’s The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, published by The Electronic Intifada on 15 October: that of conflating liberalism with leftism.
The confusion to which I allude begins in the very title of Shahadi’s article: while the subtitle of Salaita’s book tells us he is to deal with “liberal thought,” we are told that Shahadi’s review will concern itself with orientalism and Islamophobia on the American left. Shahadi himself reproduces this obfuscation multiple times in the article’s opening paragraph, where he indicates that such “liberal icons” as Michael Moore and Barbara Ehrenreich, with their “liberal politics,” are somehow “on the left.” He similarly goes on to associate The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers with “the left” and to claim that it was a “shift to the left” in US society that brought about Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 presidential elections. Reflecting briefly at the close of the article on some of Obama’s myriad failures thus far in the foreign policy realm, Shahadi concludes that Arab- and Muslim-American concerns go without representation in the US political system, regardless of whether the Bush “right” or Obama “left” is in power.
Much of Shahadi’s analysis here is surely worthwhile, particularly in his treatment of Ehrenreich on Afghan civilian casualties and the War on Terror in general. His conflation of liberalism and “the left,” however, is ignorant as well as deeply misleading. Leftists — that is, Marxists, anarchists, and all other socialists — have long disagreed very fundamentally with liberals on many deeply important questions, foremost among them being the place of capitalism, the State, imperialism, social domination and hierarchy generally in existing society. Liberals are notorious for their compromised approach to these social ills; most serious leftists call for their outright abolition. It follows, then, that a leftist society would be quite different than a liberal one.
Seen from this perspective, then, there is little that is remotely “left” in the accession of Obama to the US presidency. Obama is a liberal, yes; he is markedly not a leftist. It is to be expected as well as hoped that, were leftism ever to gain a foothold in history, the racism and imperialism inherent to extant global power relations would be overcome, and the barbarous liberalism that Joseph Massad so eloquently denounces (“Obama’s Peace,” 20 October) overthrown.
In light of the seriousness of the present predicament, then, let us not make the mistake of perpetuating the rendering-invisible of the radically humanist political tradition of leftism in our attempts to combat liberal complicity with imperialism.
Javier Sethness, 23, is an educator, libertarian socialist and advocate for the Palestinian people. Last year, he spent nearly six months teaching English in and around Nablus, Palestine.
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